A Prized Journey

We had all come to give him the prize.

He was old and emaciated, lying on the hospital bed while members of the prize committee clustered around him, holding the ubiquitous shawl, prasad plate and a marigold garland.

I asked a senior member of the committee to give him the good news. He cleared his throat and, with extreme politeness, introduced the chair, the other nominated members, well known and generously awarded. He then announced the good news but there was no reaction from the bed.

“Why don’t you speak a little louder, closer to his ears?”

The senior member did as suggested but there was not the slightest movement.

“Tell him we’ve come to give him the prize, maybe he’ll wake up then.”

The line was repeated but the senior member shook his head with great disappointment and said, “He’s not listening to us at all.”

The situation was a baffling one. A few members became suspicious, not wanting the entire prize committee to land in hot water. One of them lunged forward to grope for a pulse—and found it in the right place. We exhaled. I mean, we had all known he was pretty old, either ninety or ninety-two, and had been lying in the hospital for the past fifteen months. His disease was incurable, and consequently he fulfilled every condition of being given an award. A team of doctors was waiting in readiness for his reactions to the numerous tests he was subjected to, poised to answer the most pressing research questions. His body had been transformed into the most notable laboratory of the country. Though his health bulletin had been hanging by a thread since last week, no one had imagined such an anti-climax.

It was no longer a question simply about his condition. The dignity and prestige of our prize was at stake. We had come equipped with a shawl, the prasad plate, reporters and a photographer, to hand him the award, but he did not seem the least bit inclined to do his bit.

You know we had to endure a similar anti-climactic situation last year. It so happened the über-old, disease-ridden, touching-a-century writer, who was announced as our prize recipient, was living in a remote, far-off place. You needed to change two trains to reach the prize city from that place but it was concluded the farther away the writer came from and the older he was, the more illustrious the award would be considered. So the announcement was made and when the committee insisted upon it, the poor writer humbly agreed to come to the city. He booked his tickets, and on the appointed day, started on his journey. However, he got ensnared by the sweeping cold front while he was changing trains and began his return journey right then and there. So this time, the committee was a lot more alert. It was decided to sift through and choose someone old and decrepit from the city itself. Fortunately, we found our candidate admitted in the hospital. The only obstacle now was he wouldn’t listen.

And these media folks were another nuisance; impossible to trust them! It would hardly be a surprise to read: Renowned writer so-and-so, struggling between life and death as he lay on the hospital bed for several months, was discharged forever from this world, while countless award committees of this country, located in every lane, every street, were left waiting for him to be discharged. Read about the apathetic attitude of award committees toward our city’s veteran writers.

On our part, each one of us did our best to rouse the writer, but like Lord Shiva’s divine bow, he would not budge an inch. Our flowers and garlands were wilting, the photographer was angry and the reporters fuming, but our writer, like the great poet Kabir’s sheet, remained rooted to the spot.

You must understand that after all, prizes have some pride too. If the give-and-take is done in a decent fashion, everyone goes home feeling important. Imagine, if a beggar returns his alms, where will the benefactor hide his face? Our chairman’s face resembled that benefactor’s. Accepting the setback, he went into a huddle with the other members. Finally, the doctor was called.

“He’s not waking up,” the chairman said.

“He’s not going to, he’s in a coma,” the doctor answered, untroubled.

“Do you know, we’ve come here to give him a prize?” the chair said, hinting at his predicament.

“I know, but he doesn’t. What can be done?” the doctor said sympathetically.

‘That’s why we are asking you to wake him up. You’re the doctor, at least try. He doesn’t have to be up for very long, five or ten minutes will suffice.”

“I understand your dilemma but we haven’t yet invented the miracle cure for bringing a patient from coma to consciousness long enough for him to accept an award,” the doctor said and then left for his rounds.

I was of the opinion that we should wriggle out of this situation by giving away the prize while he was still in coma. Who knew whether he would accept the award once he was conscious? But the chairman was hanging on to the last straw. He was of the view that you needed a strong heart to reject an award. Moreover, this was not some government prize where the writer—after accepting the award—would have to mention in each and every official form, request letter or contract. In the case of our award, he wouldn’t have to say: ‘I am not a government prize writer.’ In the same style as: ‘I am not a government servant.’

The chairman also believed that prizes had great power, such that the deaf began to hear, the mute started to speak and the poor walked with parasols over their head. The prize was the parasol over the writer’s head. Prizes made the writer renowned. Once his writing was prized, he became qualified to bestow prizes. His books were included in various syllabi, and years of unpublished writings saw the light of day under the title of ‘Collected Works.’ Happiness and good fortune stormed down from the heavens on the roof of the writer’s hovel, forcing it to cave in. And because the roof had caved in, the writer had to move into a stable structure. No good deed in the world was better or greater than giving away a prize. The chairman said, “Just think, we are in a position to bring so much happiness and affluence to a person so lacking in everything.

“But all this will happen only if he comes out of coma. Right now, in the name of stable housing, he seems to have made a permanent move into the general ward of this government hospital.”

The doctor returned. “You people haven’t left yet? Visiting hours are almost over.”

“But we haven’t met him yet! Don’t you understand our problem?”

While scanning the temperature chart of another patient, the doctor said, “The prize one? What’s the value of this prize?”

The chairman looked as if his nose was out of joint. “Don’t you know asking the cash value of a prize or the age of a woman are an insult to the dignity of both?”

“I’m sorry! I only meant to suggest that you could give the amount to the nurse on duty. She’ll hand it over to his family. Anyway, what’ll he do with the prize?” The doctor sounded preoccupied.

The chairman was close to tears. “You just don’t get it. The reputation of our prize is being trampled upon. Please do something.” He had been reduced to groveling. “By evening, please bring him to the state where he can accept the prize, even if it’s only for five or ten minutes.”

By now the doctor was beside himself. Suddenly, the chairman’s face glowed as if it as his eureka moment. He turned to the doctor. “For the help you’ll be rendering, we announce a special prize from our committee for your distinguished contribution in the medical field.”

The doctor could not believe his ears, or his eyes. Holding the prasad plate in his hands, the chairman said, “Please accept this prasad and the shawl. We’ll get another plate for him by this evening. Until then, with the help of some other doctors, please try to revive him.”

The chairman’s logic was on target. A prize really had great power. Riding on that power, the government hospital’s doctor worked his fingers to the bone and managed to prop up the comatose writer against a pillow in a sitting position; somehow or the other, the patient’s eyes were pried open as wide as possible. The doctor could do no more. The writer was still miles away from saying or listening, sensing or understanding.

One of the members offered him the prasad plate while another, standing behind the patient, guided his arm to receive the plate. Elated and emotional, the chairman draped the shawl around the writer’s shoulders. Reporters’ pens scrambled across their notepads like race horses while the camera shutter clicked rhythmically. The members of the prize committee delightedly had their pictures taken. They were saying to each other: “Bravo! What a great writer! So humble and shy, he has lowered his eyes…miles away from any kind of flirtation or blandishments.”

Who cared a hoot if he was miles away? Not one but two triumphant prize ceremonies had been accomplished, one for the doctor and one for his patient.

Bios

Suryabala

Based in Bombay, Suryabala is originally from Varanasi in the northern part of India. She completed her Ph.D. in Hindi Literature at Benares Hindu University. She has been a prolific writer for more than three decades, publishing in all the major Hindi-language magazines and newspapers in the country. Besides satire, she has written novels and short stories, some of which have been adapted for television.

Puja Birla

Puja Birla has a double MFA in nonfiction writing and literary translation from the University of Iowa. She has some intention of becoming a full-time writer and translator. She loves to gossip, do the NYT crossword, and drink chai. She misses the monsoon rains of Bombay, but has developed a deep appreciation of Iowa’s clear blue skies. She may be reached at birlapuja@gmail.com.

A Prized Journey.  Copyright (c) Suryabala, 2001.  English translation copyright (c) Puja Birla, 2009.